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At the core

I appreciate Tim Geddert’s overview of the New Testament on atonement (“Thinking about the atonement,” June). I agree that the New Testament describes Christ’s work on the cross in several different ways (redemption, victory, etc.).

I disagree, however, with Dr. Geddert’s conclusion that the New Testament does not present one of these understandings as the “core” or central explanation of what Christ accomplished at Calvary. The fundamental human problem is our sin and the judgment and death it has brought us under.

In Scripture, we read that Jesus’ death has been received by God as a substitutionary death, paying our penalty so we might receive justification and right standing with the Father (Romans 5:10, 1 Peter 2:24). This is the foundational explanation Scripture gives for how Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished atonement. That he became a ransom for us, achieved victory over Satan, set us free as our Passover lamb, and modelled for us a sacrificial life are all amazing benefits of his death for sins in our behalf. These perspectives on the cross ought to be preached and applied from the foundation of penal substitutionary atonement. This is what Paul does in Colossians 2:13-15. Here the cross is presented as Christ’s victory over the powers – a victory that is explained by God’s having nailed to that cross the sin and judgments against us (i.e. penal substitutionary atonement).

We will spend eternity exploring the wonders of what God accomplished for us at Calvary but until then, let’s communicate clearly the explanation Scripture has given us.



Why it matters

In the debate about the atonement – raised in articles by Elmer Martens and Tim Geddert in recent MB Herald issues (April, June) and by their seminary colleague Mark Baker in The Scandal of the Cross – one thing not clarified well enough in my mind was the question “why?” Why does it matter whether we emphasize Jesus Christ as our substitute, or rather place the focus on Christus Victor (seeing the cross as the victory of Christ)? Surely both are true.

It matters for several reasons. The emphasis on Jesus Christ as the one who died in our place is at the heart of the gospel: it brings the good news home to us personally. This connects what God has done for our brokenness back to the place where healing for that brokenness has to begin, in the hearts and lives of each of us personally. On the other hand, the message that the cross represents the victory of God in our world wants to place the emphasis on the systemic injustices and ills of our world. It prefers to view the reasons for Christ’s death in his confrontation with the powers of his day and then takes its meaning forward to announce that, rather than see his death as a defeat, it actually represents victory over these powers.

Understanding Jesus’ death on the cross as substitution for ours is a way of saying that God entered into our world in Christ with the intention of giving himself as a sacrifice for us. It is what Peter stated in his great sermon at Pentecost: “Jesus of Nazareth [was] handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.” Later Peter wrote, “You know that it was not with perishable things that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

While victory language is certainly present in the Scriptures, the Gospels say much more about God in Christ taking upon himself our sin, about the act of love demonstrated on the cross, about the defenselessness he showed by letting such violence be done on him. He is the Lamb of God before he is the Lion of Judah. The act of taking our place on the cross is also at the heart of the voluntariness inherent in the gospel. Jesus chose to go to the cross. And God does not force us into anything, but offers himself to us with his gift of forgiveness and healing.

I believe the understanding of Jesus as our substitute is at the heart of our evangelical heritage. Mennonite Brethren came into being through a renewal movement that brought this understanding back strongly into our consciousness. Any evangelism is impoverished if it devalues such meaning given to Jesus’ death.

There is much more that can be said on this subject, especially in terms of the cultural arguments being made about favouring one understanding or another. But if we want to remain true to the biblical heritage that has nurtured our movement, we will not distance ourselves from a substitutionary understanding of the atonement. To do otherwise will cut the nerve of the gospel to our world.



A unique opportunity

Re “Olympic complicity” (Letters, June). More Than Gold was never intended to make political statements through its initiatives. If your personal view is that the Olympics are an unnecessary drain on the economy and infrastructure, feel free to boycott participation in the games. But what are you going to do when you meet visitors from around the world during February and March? Will you tell them about Jesus in word and deed?

The fact is, the Olympics are coming and hundreds of thousands of visitors will be in our cities. There is a unique opportunity in February and March 2010 for churches to reach out to their neighbours from across the world and across the street with the love of Jesus.

To date, 15 denominations and many parachurch organizations are coming together to serve and witness to the world coming to us. This is an awesome lesson in unity for the church. See www.morethangold.ca for how you can be involved.



How do we respond?

Jim Holm’s open letter of apology represents a most courageous move. As a colleague I was moved by its sincerity and forthrightness. Holm has sought the forgiveness of family, church, and seminary. The Christian gospel is about restoration.  Each of these entities has a mechanism for response. But how do entire conferences of churches extend forgiveness? How will Holm know that the forgiveness for which he asks has been granted? What does restoration entail in this instance?



Questionable statistic

As a sociologist of religion, I believe that accurately reporting statistics about the social organization in Canada is vital. Governments, denominations, newspapers, and churches make use of these data to make decisions that have an impact on individuals, religious groups, and society. When inaccurate statistics are publicized, particularly by denominational officials, their negative potential is increased. Thus, I was disappointed that the MB Herald published a highly questionable statistic about church involvement in Vancouver under “Heard at the B.C. Convention” (June). Church Planting B.C. director Gord Fleming is quoted as saying, “Only 3 percent of Vancouverites attend church regularly. Vancouver is a mission field.”

While I agree Vancouver is a mission field, I question the number. In “Pockets of Religious Belief: Patterns of Church Attendance,” Warren Clark, a senior researcher at Statistics Canada, reports that the average monthly church attendance rates of people in the Census Metropolitan Area of Vancouver from 1999-2001 was 28 percent. This is derived from Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey, a large survey of the time use of the Canadian population. The nation-wide average in 2000 was 31 percent, making the religious attendance rates of Vancouver-ites representative of the rest of Canada.

I encourage the MB Herald and denominational officials to verify their statistics before reporting them to the constituency.



In response, Gord Fleming told us the 3 percent probably comes from a leader with the Church Planting Canada Leadership Team, although the original source of the information could not be confirmed. In the May 2009 B.C. Church Planting report, Mr. Fleming states that “although it’s hard to pin down hard facts, upwards to 90+ percent of all people in Vancouver don’t attend an evangelical Christian church of any sort or at any time.” These figures are based on numbers of churches relative to population supplied by Lorne Hunter from Outreach Canada. Varying definitions, criteria, and assumptions may explain the divergent numbers.—Ed.

Our story

After reading Russ and Sharon Toews’ story about their son’s death (“Are you sure God is good?” June), I felt compelled to write about our son taking his life in 1992. There is life after a tragedy like this, though it will always be a wound that doesn’t totally heal.

Our son Tony had bipolar disorder, a debilitating emotional illness that is very hard to live with. Looking back we see many things we should have done, like insisting he get professional help in spite of him always refusing it. (It is always easy to see what should have been done in retrospect.) At 16, Tony started to become harder to be with instead of the easiest child we raised; he had very bad mood swings. I guess the blackness was so overwhelming and he found it too much to bear, so he took suicide as the way out.

[After that] I went so far as to tell God I was not going to follow him anymore. I was not going to follow a God that would allow that to happen to someone who had followed him like I felt I had. I tried to stay mad at God, but I was so miserable, and God won out. I’m so glad he never leaves you or forsakes you. Tony gave his life to Jesus and our family has the assurance he is with God now. Knowing he is not suffering and in the arms of Jesus gives us great peace of mind. We have grown considerably as a family through this experience. I have learned to rely on our heavenly Father much more, because his rod and his staff sustained me as I walked through the valley of death.

Still, I pray that whoever reads this never experiences anything like this. Thank you for allowing me to share from my heart.


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